I know you guys love your Game of Thrones, your Breaking Bad, your Vampire Diaries, what have you. Those shows all know how to keep a plot moving, despite having several different parts, tons of characters, and complex, long-term relationships. Like all great serialized television series, they know how to tell stories over a long period of time, and they know how to let the past impact the present. They're also all pretty awesome.
But here's the thing: MTV's The Challenge (formerly The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, not to mention all sorts of themed subtitles) is more skilled than those scripted shows at telling serialized stories. I'm being a little facetious, of course, and The Challenge isn't necessarily a better overall show, but amid the drunken debauchery, crying, yelling, and cryelling, MTV's tentpole reality series (sorry, preggo teens) has one of the weirdest, longest, and most fascinating histories on television.
The benefits of history and reality TV "arcs"
The Challenge began in 1998, and tonight's premiere of The Challenge: Rivals II brings us the 24th (!) season of the show. Let those data points sink in for a moment. As an off-shoot of two of MTV's big 1990s properties, The Real World and Road Rules, the show has endured multiple mini-revolutions in reality TV and cable programming practices by morphing from a silly excuse to bring the network's stars together to a full-blown athletic strategy competition. It deserves more credit than it gets for preceding some of the more popular or infamous reality shows of today. Yet, despite regular reinventions, The Challenge has continued to rely on a certain trove of characters and their never-ending beefs and dramas.
And while the show is still mostly about people whining and punching one another, it's also become a space for interesting stories—like, real stories about people's lives—to play out over an extended period of time in a way that's pretty uncommon for reality television as we know it. It's a show where the post-Real World/Road Rules universe bleeds into the televised narrative. Drama that boils up between seasons, maybe at a "speaking engagement" (a.k.a. a bar crawl or a sponsored party at Bro U), might later result in legitimate tension on-screen. The Challenge is a show where characters like Derrick and Brad can talk about returning to the game over and over or One. Last. Time. so they can win the money for their families. It's a show where couples like CT and Diem can come together in a showmance that turns real, break up over legitimately serious issues (she had cancer, he lost family members, they're both messed up), and then appear years later with all kinds of history and tension that scripted TV can't quite match. And it's a show where the Survivorfication of reality TV has paid off: Alliances are formed even before MTV flips on an HD handicam because everybody already knows—and mostly despises—everybody else.
It's kind of nuts to say this, because it's not like these are the most admirable of people, even in the warped world of reality TV, but The Challenge really makes you care about its "characters," whether you love 'em or hate 'em. Although that's mostly because you keep seeing the same people again and again and the show eventually finds a story, sometimes even a long-term arc, for all of them. For example, I can say with complete honesty that there are few individual characters I'm more interested and invested in than CT; he's been part of my (TV-watching) life for a decade.
A reality TV innovator
I would say that with most reality shows, even long-running ones, you don't necessarily need to know anything about them before jumping right in. Never seen The Amazing Race before? There are teams, and they race. Unfamiliar with America's Next Top Model? Tyra Banks is loco and the premise is in the title, but it's a lie because the winners is more likely to end up on The Soup than the cover of Vogue. Certain reality shows like The Real Housewives franchise do require more knowledge of prior episodes and seasons, but those shows do enough other stuff to keep you locked in, and really, they're just soaps (which is okay!).
What's so fascinating about The Challenge is that its internal history goes back so far; it's one of the only reality shows on television that truly maintains a balance between the competition format and the soapy drama. All serialized TV borrows heavily from the soap genre, and all reality TV producers know how to craft "arcs" and "characters" out of the raw footage. But no other reality show hopes that you'll remember something that happened during a Gulag competition it held in 2010 (just Google it) or a slap fight that occurred in 2007. Most reality competition shows don't ask you to invest in individuals or couples over a multi-year period, and most reality soaps aren't constructing conflict out of truly grueling physical challenges.
The Survivor Effect
To be fair, there's no question that The Challenge took a turn for the better once Survivor started making big waves after it premiered in 2000. The producers of The Challenge recognized the value of having cast members vote their peers out, especially since they were working with cast members who already knew each another. 2002's Battle of the Seasons introduced the voting element and a few years later, the difficulty level of the physical challenges was ramped up to Survivor-esque levels. Without Survivor, The Challenge wouldn't be what it is today.
Still though, The Challenge has also had a big impact on Survivor, and other similar reality shows. In recent years, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Big Brother have repeatedly brought back former cast members to play with the newbies as a way to use the past to make the present more intriguing (and to appeal to viewers' sense of nostalgia). And a show like Bachelor Pad is basically just a straight-up rip-off of The Challenge. But none of those shows can really match The Challenge's sense of history and its desire to keep filming the same people, season after season, hoping to deepen that history and give the audience an ongoing look at the characters and their relationships. Yes, of course, The Challenge is absolutely one of the worst kinds of reality TV, but we can't deny that it's also one of the most complex. When CT punches Wes, it's more than just the alcohol talking.
The Challenge: Rivals II premieres tonight at 10pm on MTV.